Corruption and the misuse of land are blighting Cambodia’s development, foreign aid donors said Tuesday. Though perennial sore subjects in Cambodia’s dialogue with donors, the two issues stood in stark contrast to the clear progress donors said the government has registered in improving health and education.
Acting UN Resident Coordinator Suomi Sakai told the year’s first quarterly stocktaking conference on development that “significant progress” had been made in legislation and policy planning for health and education.
Education Ministry Secretary of State Mak Vann said that between 2000 and 2007, the number of new students entering the sixth grade rose 73 percent to 312,909.
The number of students reaching grade nine rose in the same period from 56,849 to 127,201, 43 percent of whom are girls, he said, adding that repetition and dropout rates remained “stubbornly high” while almost a quarter of schools are unable to offer the full six years of primary education due to lack of teachers and classrooms.
Sakai noted that 20 percent of primary school students do not regularly attend class and that fewer than half are expected to reach the sixth grade.
World Bank Country Director Ian Porter said donors were encouraged that the government was willing to adopt a uniform system of merit-based pay incentives for the civil service.
However, US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said donors were “perplexed by the apparent lack of priority” given to enacting the anticorruption law.
Currently under review at the Council of Ministers, the draft law is a 2002 donor benchmark that has haunted government corridors for more than a decade.
Government officials at the meeting recognized delays in adopting the legislation but said the government was committed to fighting corruption even in the law’s absence, and that the draft law could be voted on during the current session of the National Assembly—a prospect officials have held out in the past.
Phov Samphy, director-general for research and judicial development at the Justice Ministry, told the donor meeting that enacting the anticorruption law depended on first adopting the draft penal code, which had to be harmonized with other recently passed laws. The penal code was completed by the Council of Ministers in December, he said.
“Now that the penal code is finalized, we hope our wait will be short,” he said of the anticorruption law.
Sar Sambath, permanent member of the Council of Ministers anticorruption unit, said there had been a public campaign against graft that included seminars, workshops and student debates, some of which have been televised.
“Significant actions were taken against more than 100 out of 225 judges, prosecutors and clerks,” he said, adding that in 2007, Cambodia signed the UN Convention against Corruption and an anticorruption agreement with eight other Asean nations.
Mussomeli acknowledged some signs of progress but said the bigger picture was increasingly glum.
“It’s as if the house of Cambodia were on fire and instead of calling the firemen, instead of getting the water hoses, the government is simply pouring a glass or two of water on the flames,” he said.
Ernest Loignon, charge d’affaires at the Canadian Embassy, said the government appeared to grant controversial economic land concessions in violation of the 2001 Land Law and had failed to issue a single collective title to an indigenous group.
“In areas most affected by rapid urban expansion, forced evictions and involuntary resettlements have created greater insecurity of land tenure,” Loignon said.
“Such incidents appear to have been permitted in contravention of the Land Law,” he said.
Agriculture Ministry Secretary of State Chan Tong Yves said the government valued small-scale farming and had not granted land concessions indiscriminately.
“We have been abiding by the law on economic concessions. We cannot just grant economic concessions to anyone,” he said.
Ministry of Land Management Secretary of State Chhann Saphan said that persons evicted from land in Phnom Penh had been occupying it illegally and that draft policies on registering communal land were under review.
Chhann Saphan’s wife Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting, is herself engaged in a protracted legal battle with ethnic minority villagers in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadaw district over 450 hectares of land.
Deputy Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Mann Chhoeun presented a slideshow to donors on the relocation of residents from Bassac commune to sites in Dangkao district.
“The allegation that people were moved to jobless areas, this has been repudiated,” he said. “The people who were truly poor, the squatters, were happy to move to another place,” he added.
SRP President Sam Rainsy, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, said with national elections looming in July, donors should be cautious about offering the government too much encouragement.
“Donors should not give their approval, their endorsement to the Cambodian government too easily, especially in this election process,” he said.
“If they could use their influence in that way, then I think the Cambodian people could have an alternative.”
Donors have frequently vented frustrations with the progress made by the government, but there has been little evidence in the past that those grievances have affected the flow of development assistance.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)